Blue jeans are undoubtedly an iconic American staple. First invented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss in the late 1800’s, jeans became the quintessential work trouser of gold miners and ranchers.
These solid pairs of pants were handmade from a durable cotton twill and dyed naturally with Indigofera tinctoria (‘indigo’ for short). Add strategically placed, reinforced metal rivets and you had a rugged commodity that was beloved by miners arriving in droves out West, during the gold rush era.
Hollywood brought blue jeans to the big screen in black-and-white Western’s, but it was in the 1950’s that they became a symbol of counterculture and rebellion thanks to James Dean. In fact, jeans became so controversial that people were kicked out of public places for wearing them!
Today these all-American pants have transformed into everyday casual wear in multiple cuts, washes, fits and coveted designer labels.
Along with a 21st century makeover, the process of making the blue jean has drastically changed.
The original metal rivets have since been removed (they were damaging chairs) and the pure natural fiber content of a pair of jeans (cotton and/or wool) has been intertwined or replaced with synthetic, poly-based fibers like elastic (hello athleisure-wear), finished in toxic dye baths. Although jeans are now woven on machine, they still touch many hands along the way.
H&M has served as a hotspot for affordable trendy jeans that cost less than your dinner. Despite a sparkly facade, the fast fashion company has been called out repetitively for human negligence in their garment factories.
So what do we know about this stylish pair of distressed boyfriend jeans that retail at $39.90?
Made in Cambodia
Approximately 510,000 women work in the 560 officially registered Cambodian garment factories, with many more working within the shadowy world of subcontracting to produce our fast fashion.
Issues particularly in subcontracted factories include underage workers entering the industry as young as 14 to work long hard hours for low wages, while dealing with sexual harassment.
A report done by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance found 11 out of 12 factories fired women for becoming pregnant. Brave makers risk their lives in protesting for living wages and face police brutality.
When you buy from ethical Cambodian brands like Tonlé, women earn fair wages, benefits and enjoy a safe and nurturing work environment.
Cotton is a thirsty crop. It takes about 1,500 gallons of water to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans.
When grown conventionally, the cotton crop relies on chemicals to avert weeds and pests – using 16% of the world’s insecticides.
As an alternative, some farmers rely on genetically modified cotton seeds. In fact, in 2010 H&M was called out for fraud because 30% of their organic cotton products were found to be made with GMO cotton. Since then, the company has been working with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) for solutions. Although not organic, BCI helps to promote sustainable agriculture through water conservation and attention to soil health.
When you buy better, fibers are grown responsibly with consideration to water conservation and sustainable agriculture.
When considering the environmental impacts of apparel, the manufacturing of denim is one of the worst culprits. It uses 17 billion gallons of water and up to 225,000 tons of chemicals annually– like cadmium, mercury, and lead to name a few. Another chemical often used in the dying process, nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), is known to cause cancer and was found in H&M clothing in 2011 by Greenpeace.
To make these fancy pants distressed can also be quite distressing. How does one produce this popular new made to look old trend? Multiple treatments of toxic dyes and acid baths.
To think that every time these processed jeans are washed, harmful chemicals trickle into our water supply and our oceans. Oh yeah, and we wear them on our skin.
When you buy better, you save the environment – and yourself – from dangerous chemicals.
While contaminated waterways and health concerns are definitely alarming, the highest environmental cost of this pair of jeans might just be the rate in which it is produced. Relying on the high turnover of trends at super low prices, H&M puts out a whopping 600 million products each year.
The average American tosses out approximately 82 lbs of textiles every year.
When you buy fewer better things that last, you slow down the pace at which fast fashion is filling up landfills.